From addict to entrepreneur: how one man is trying to cut crime in Winnipeg

Mike Millard, a recovering addict, is creating two projects that he hopes will decrease Winnipeg's gang problems and boost options for low-cost housing.

Mike Millard got clean, then started a social enterprise to help people addicted to drugs

Mike Millard created About Face and Suitehom as he's recovering from a crystal meth addiction. He says giving back is part of his transition to a normal life. (Warren Kay/CBC News)

In three years, Mike Millard went from meth user to entrepreneur, creating new options for people struggling with gangs, drugs and poverty. 

"I used to spend a lot of time using," said the Winnipeg father. "In my recovery, I've had to find productive things to do with that time that used to be unproductive."

Over the past 18 months, Millard has been working on two projects that he said will work together to decrease Winnipeg's gang problems and boost options for low-cost housing.

How it will work

The first project, called "About Face," will help men over 24 years old exit gang life. The men will go through counselling and addictions treatment as they transition out of a life of crime. Then they will participate in the second project, called "Suitehom," which will train them to build houses out of shipping containers.

Mike Millard shows the dimensions of one shipping container. Two of these units will be welded together to create a home. (Warren Kay/CBC News)

Once built the shipping-container-houses will be sold, providing housing options for low-income Manitobans. Millard said the units could be used for anything from Manitoba Housing to families who want to give their elderly parents a safe place to live.

Millard said the money from shipping container sales will be recycled into the program, supporting About Face's operations. Eventually, Millard said, that means putting the money toward a 28-bed facility for the gang exit program — a place where the men can live while they go through About Face.

"The idea is that the business will help generate income that helps support the gang exit program and the development of the social enterprise," said Millard.

"Because funding is such an ongoing issue, the development of a social enterprise reduces our requirement for funding in the future."

Entrepreneurship as recovery

Millard said this operation is his way to give back. Three years ago, Millard was desperately searching for help with his meth addiction. He happened to be living down the street from now Winnipeg Police Chief Danny Smyth and turned to the closest resource he had.

"I knocked on his door and said, can you help me? I'm struggling. I'm addicted, I don't know what to do. I'm scared of what tomorrow's going to bring." Millard said.

At one point, after losing his house because of his addictions, Millard tried to break back into the property, and was arrested.

He spent time in Headingley Correctional Centre and received treatment from the Anchorage Addiction Treatment Program.

Millard is now staying in a transitional sober living facility, and retains a positive relationship with the Winnipeg Police Service —  Smyth and Millard are still close, and Inspector Max Waddell of the organized crime division is on the board of directors for About Face.

This visual shows how shipping container homes can look once finished. (Supplied: John Duerksen Architecture for Suitehom)

Millard said, while police have their place in solving drug and gang issues, he believes it's going to take a more holistic approach to address meth, since it is so pervasive in Winnipeg.

"The police can't arrest their way out of every problem," he said.

"We can do a good job educating young people on the dangers of getting involved with gangs, but there's still an intervention piece and a rehabilitation piece, and that's the part we're trying to fill in."

Currently running on donations

Both About Face and Suitehom are running on volunteer time and money. United Way and Assiniboine Credit Union have both put money toward About Face. Millard said he's been able to raise around $10,000 and is working to gain charitable status for the enterprise.

ADM Storage has donated two shipping containers to build a prototype building this fall. Marco Costantini is the company's operations manager, and hopes this donation will help people struggling to get clean. 

"Maybe this could create not only housing, but a plan to keep them off the streets. Being more of a part of the community."

Millard said he believes the enterprise will be successful since it collaborates with industries outside of law enforcement, like the construction industry.

"I think that's why we've been having the success that we are — we've been able to go to a different area for the support we need."

Hoping to share his story

Although he'll be running these projects, Millard said he'd like to be involved with counselling the men who are leaving gang and drug circles too. 

"The consequences of drug use are dramatic — it's traumatic," he said.

"It's my own testimony, my story, that I hope to be able to share with other guys."

Millard said it will take a few years to get the programming running, but hopes to have a prototype of the shipping container home on display at the Canadian Mennonite University this September.

This box is going to become a home and a ticket out of gang life

4 years ago
Duration 1:41
A former meth addict has collaborated with a shipping container company in an effort to help men exit gang life, while providing housing for low income Manitobans.


Sam Samson


Sam Samson is a multimedia journalist who has worked for CBC in Manitoba and Ontario as a reporter and associate producer. Before working for CBC, she studied journalism and communications in Winnipeg. You can get in touch on Twitter @CBCSamSamson or email